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The Truth About Eczema in Babies and Toddlers

Updated on March 2, 2015
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I'm sure you've been told, or you've heard through the grapevine, that infants and children have many "skin conditions" that are perfectly normal and will go away on their own. While that's true, they can still be scary for many a parent, especially those new to parenthood.

Baby acne, cradle cap, hand foot and mouth disease, hives, yeast infections, jaundice, and diaper rash are some of the more common ones you hear about. But children are prone to so many more, such as erythema toxicum, folliculitis, impetigo, roseola, infective conjunctivitis and others. Poor kids.

Eczema is actually a VERY common condition, affecting approximately 20% of infants and children, and even more adults, and it can start as early as two months of age. I know when I first saw this on my child, I just thought it was dry skin. However, it just kept getting worse and worse until the basic home remedies weren't working and we had to figure out what exactly we were dealing with.

He started with some simple dry, slightly red patches on his hands, face and chest. We applied lotion day and night to help him out along with limiting his bath times. These "dry" patches spread to his neck and stomach and got even more red, so we thought his spit-up might be making it worse and tried to let him go without clothes so the wet cloth wasn't sitting on his skin.

Then he started fussing, being kept up at night, and itching, sometimes leaving deep scratches that would bleed on his chest, which is when we started doing research. When it comes down to it, had we been more aware from the beginning, I don't think our sweet little one would have ever had to deal with this at all. So now I share our research and a little extra help with you, so you don't have to face what we did.

What is Eczema?

Eczema is a skin condition that usually starts in infancy and has two distinct components.

First of all, eczema starts with dry, easily irritated skin. Research shows that children with this condition have a genetic tendency toward dry skin and eczema somewhere in the family line. Children with eczema have skin that does not retain moisture very well, thus giving it a dry, slightly rough texture and making it prone to irritation. To further complicate matters, this dry, irritated skin is itchy, causing children to scratch frequently, which leads to worse itching and scratching, and so on.

Allergies also play a huge part in a child getting eczema. Children with this condition usually have some underlying allergies with allergic reactions that are manifested in the skin. When exposed to these allergens, the skin over-reacts and breaks out in a rash. The already dry and slightly irritated skin is less able to handle this allergic rash, and less able to heal itself quickly. (Ask Dr. Sears)

What Does Eczema Look Like?

Eczema can manifest in a number of ways depending on your heredity, your individual child's particular immune system, and how severe the condition is when you see it on your child. The most common characteristics are

  • Dry skin – your child will have slightly dry skin with a rough texture. You may be able to see and feel tiny white bumps, scales or flakes as you run your fingers across the skin.
  • Dry patches – you may see scattered, scaly, dry, white patches anywhere on the body.
  • Flare-ups – from time to time you will see some areas of the skin become more irritated and flare up. These will look like raised, red, areas with possible slightly oozing patches. Flare-ups generally occur near skin creases, most commonly the inside of the elbows and behind the knees, but also in the neck, wrists and hands, and feet. It can also occur on the trunk. One unique aspect of eczema is that it usually does not affect the diaper area. (Ask Dr. Sears)

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How Do I Know If My Baby Has Eczema?

See Common Eczema Triggers below to know what to look for. However, with all of the different skin conditions, it might not be quite as easy to identify as it may sound in the above sections.

I would start by identifying any dry skin patches that you've tried moisturizing and they just won't go away. Your little one may also have red areas that look like scales or flakes that the use of thicker creams and ointments aren't improving. Finally, if you catch your child scratching these areas, especially if he or she is drawing blood, it may be time to visit the doctor for a diagnosis.

Note that children with eczema may be more likely to develop allergies or asthma but one does not cause the other. (NationalEczema.org)

How is Eczema Different in Babies Compared with Toddlers and Older Children?

The biggest difference in infants vs children with eczema is that the location and appearance of eczema changes as they grow.

In young babies, eczema is most prominent on the cheeks, forehead, and scalp. It may affect other areas of the body but it usually spares the diaper area. At 6 to 12 months of age, it is often worst on the crawling surfaces, the elbows and knees. Around the age of two the distribution changes and tends to involve the creases of the elbows and knees, the wrists, ankles, and hands. It may affect the skin around the mouth and the eyelids. Older children and adolescents may have eczema only involving the hands. (NationalEczema.org)

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The Possible Dangers of Eczema in Children

Although this may seem like a relatively tame skin condition that is rather common and can be handled easily, there are some serious dangers if left untreated.

It's important to know that children with eczema are much more susceptible to other bacterial skin infections, especially in the areas where the rash is the worst. Scratching can also cause thickened, darkened, or scarred skin over time. If untreated, the rash can be unsightly, so it may present a social challenge for a child, too.

The biggest concern is an infection called impetigo. Though your child may try to get relief by scratching with his hands or by rubbing his face against the sheet during sleep, this scratching and rubbing can further irritate or inflame the skin and make matters much worse. Scratching can cause infection to set in. Signs that this is occurring are increased redness of the skin around the rash and a honey-colored fluid oozing from the rash or forming a crust over the rash.

Be sure to give the doctor a call if your child develops a fever or other signs of an infection, such as the area being warm to the touch, oozing, or having a yellow crust. These are signs that your child needs immediate attention by a professional.

Did I Do Something to Cause This?

No one knows for sure what causes eczema, but research has shown that the tendency to have eczema is often inherited. So your child is more likely to have it if you or a close family member has had eczema, asthma, or allergies.

Don't blame yourself. Although there are steps you can take to minimize the appearance and/or the pain that may come with eczema, there may be absolutely nothing you can do about your child's likelihood at being prone to it. If your child does get eczema, you can rest assured that many children outgrow eczema by age 2, and many others outgrow it by adulthood. (BabyCenter)

For tips on treatment and prevention, keep on reading!

Eczema Management Plan

Eczema Management Plan
Eczema Management Plan | Source

Possible Soothing Treatments

Infant or Sensitive-Skin Lotion

Warm Baths with Oatmeal

A Humidifier in the Room

Eczema-Specific Cream or Ointment

Soothing Massage

Essential Oils

Soft Blankets and Clothing

Common Eczema Triggers

As with any other allergic reactions, there are many possible causes. Here are some to name just a few.

  • Dry skin. This is often caused by low humidity, especially during winter when homes are well-heated and the air is dry. Dry skin can make a baby's eczema more itchy.
  • Irritants. Think scratchy wool clothes, perfumes, body soaps, and laundry soaps. These can all trigger a baby's eczema flares.
  • Stress. Children with baby eczema may react to stress by flushing, which leads to itchy, irritated skin -- and an increase in eczema symptoms.
  • Heat and sweat. Both heat and sweat can make the itch of infant eczema worse.
  • Allergens. There's still debate as to whether food allergies in children trigger eczema. Some experts believe that removing cow's milk, peanuts, eggs, or certain fruits from a child's diet may help control eczema symptoms. (WebMD)
  • Moisture. Allowing wet or soiled clothing to sit on your child's tender skin can easily cause a red, rash-like reaction. It's important to make sure that although they will inevitably soil their clothing, that they stay clean and dry as much as possible.

Common Food Allergies

A child could be allergic to any food, but these eight common allergens account for 90% of all reactions in kids:

  1. milk
  2. eggs
  3. peanuts
  4. soy
  5. strawberries
  6. tree nuts (such as walnuts and cashews)
  7. fish
  8. shellfish (such as shrimp)

(KidsHealth.org)

What Can I Do to Help My Child Feel Better?

I'm there with you. When your child is hurting, you want to do everything in your power to make him or her feel better. However, treating eczema requires that you treat both your child's dry skin and their skin inflammation. So let's look at some treatments you can use to give your child some relief.

Avoid Dry Skin

Some articles will tell you not to bathe your child so frequently in order to avoid dry skin, but the truth is, baths will keep your child clean and their skin free of irritants, as well as keeping them moisturized. However, make sure to dry them off thoroughly after the bath and liberally apply a nice sensitive skin lotion or baby lotion free of scents or unneeded chemicals. A nice thick cream might even be better for sealing in their skin's moisture and keeping their skin protected longer.

Avoid Skin Irritants

Consider your child's skin at all times when making decisions. This includes choosing the right bath shampoo and soap, considering the right moisturizer, making sure their clothes are soft and comforting rather than being scratchy or rough, and even thinking about the products you are washing their clothing in. Many children are also sensitive to smoke, perfumes, scented candles, and air fresheners. It may even be helpful to consider what kinds of foods they are eating.

Control the Itching

When it gets bad enough, itching can become a huge problem, that can lead to disastrous results if not handled. Not only can it be dangerous, but it can be heart-wrenching to watch your little one itching. To relieve the itching, try the heavy eczema-specific creams and ointments. Neosporin has a great cream for childhood eczema, there are many hydrocortisone products on the market that are safe for children, and if it gets bad enough, a doctor can prescribe a steroid cream to use on a very limited basis, but steroids can get hinky. Simply using a nice thick eczema cream should quell the itching enough to allow the eczema to heal.

What Can I Do to Prevent Eczema?

There really is no way to prevent eczema if your child is prone to getting it. However, there are tons of ways you can help to keep it at bay or at least shorten its lifespan when it appears.

First, get to know your child’s triggers. Do certain foods that either of you eat (if you're breastfeeding) cause problems with their skin? Do high stress situations like crowds and loud noises increase the rashes on your child's body? The better you know your child and what causes the eczema, the better you can avoid them as much as possible.

I also recommend treating patches of dry skin or eczema as soon as they appear, since this can prevent more severe rashes. There has been no proven way to completely prevent eczema, but taking good care of your child's skin and well-being can work wonders to prevent it as much as possible.

How to Spot and Treat Childhood Eczema

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© 2015 Victoria Van Ness

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Welcome back. It's good to see you writing again.

    • VVanNess profile image
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      Victoria Van Ness 2 years ago from Prescott Valley

      Thanks! Elliot is now almost 5 months old and taking naps so I have some time to write again. :) I'm excited! Although it took me three days to write that. Lol It's good to hear from you!

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 2 years ago from Central Florida

      My son had a mild case of eczema when he was an infant. It only lasted a couple of weeks. That was 22 years ago, so I don't remember what we did to ease it. I just know it went away quickly and has never reappeared.

      Very informative article!

    • VVanNess profile image
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      Victoria Van Ness 2 years ago from Prescott Valley

      Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

    • noniebdavis profile image

      NBD 18 months ago from Diamond Bar, California

      I don't have any children but I read your article because I'm an adult that suffers from Eczema. When I was a kid the doctors just thought it was allergies. As an adult I was told I had Eczema. I think it's important for parents to understand the difference between skin allergies and eczema because of the experiences I had.

      Now that I know I have Eczema and not skin allergies I have been able to keep my breakouts down to about once a year. I was able to change my skincare routine to fit the needs of someone with Eczema.

      I still get Eczema around my eyes and on my neck which isn't very common for an adult. Your article was the first I read that actually references adults having it around their eyes. Kudos to all your research.

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